Review: “Winter Boy” by Sally Wiener Grotta

“Winter Boy” is a fantasy about a land where women rule. By choosing their male assistants at a crucial age and mentoring their sexual maturing, these women, called Alleshas, have created a peaceful domain, which is now being threatened by a tribe of violent men who cannot be reasoned with.
Rishana is a newly trained Allesha, about to experience her first student, Ryl, who is definitely not an easy subject, but has the potential to become a bridge between the two warring peoples. This is the story of their mentoring process, as each learns the skills and difficulties of his or her role.
The scope of this book is impressive, but the sheer number of people and themes leads to some difficulties for the reader. Fortunately the strengths far outweigh the problems, and I found it an impressive and entertaining read.

The Challenge
The main strength of the novel is the skill with which this author has taken on a huge task: to delineate the emotional and mental development of a young man as he goes through four months of the most important maturing process of his life. And the reciprocal development of the woman whose task it is to mentor and nurture him. By the end, we have been treated to a definitive and in-depth illustration of the development of the male-female relationship in general. A substantial accomplishment.

The Themes
The second strength is the masterful weaving of many important themes. It is a story of many of the aspects of our lives, all carefully woven together in a tight and colourful fabric: free will; the achieving of peace between different peoples, but the necessity of meeting violence with violence; the nature of truth, the necessity of keeping your council, and the damage that can do to a relationship; the need for individualism and the impossibility of truly knowing another person. All of these are revealed by a tightly involved series of plots at different levels, all interacting and relating to each other beautifully.

Point-of-View Problems
But this complexity gives birth to the main weakness of the story. Because of the number of plots and themes, the author has chosen to see the story from many different points of view, and in this her skills have let her down. Double POV is expected in a romance. Ms. Grotta makes sections from the viewpoints of the two main characters each speak with his or her distinctive voice. No problem there.
It is when the writer switches to outside POVs from the other characters that they all blend together into the general narrative voice of the author, which became confusing at times. “Who is speaking here? Why did I suddenly get a thought from that person’s head? Oh, right. This section is from his POV.” Confusing, and in a story of this scope, we don’t need to be confused.

What’s in a Name?
Adding to this problem is the one theme that does not blend with the rest: the idea that names are malleable and individualistic. Thus different people have different names for each other. So when we are dealing with the main female character from the boy’s point of view she is Tayar. But when we come from the POV of one of her fellow Alleshas, she is called Rishana, and in like manner the people who knew her from her former life in her village call her Jinet. Except for one Allesha who knew her from her village, who calls her one or the other depending on the situation. This sort of thing is possible for a few characters, but when you expand that to a cast of this scope, it becomes like reading a Russian novel, where everyone has three different names and it is impossible to keep them all straight.

I do not want my discussion of these minor points detract from the reader’s impression that this is a wonderful work of wide scope and major accomplishment. But I do feel that with a story of this magnitude, we need all the help we can get to keep everything straight.

Recommended for adult (definitely adult!) fans of Romance and good writing in general.  Four stars out of five.

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